Math Complex

I’m taking a math class.  It’s to help me brush up for the GRE (a test graduate programs like to see before they decide whether or not to admit you).  Math was never my strong suit.  More than one teacher passed me because they knew I was working my butt off and they felt sorry for me.

My new math teacher is impossibly young.  He says people always say he looks younger than his age, which is reassuring since he looks about 20.  He’s Asian, stocky, clean-cut and full of himself.  Full of himself because he knows he’s right.  He’s on the side of truth and justice, self sufficiency and hard work.  Math.  He’s on the side of math. Unfairly maligned, too often blamed and made the whipping boy of the undisciplined and the lazy mind.

On the first day of class, as he’s handing out course materials he begins to try to indoctrinate us.  It’s subtle.  “You guys should think about something while you’re here.  Every day I hear people say they’re not good at math, or that they can’t do math, that they hate math.  It’s socially acceptable.  People admit it all the time.  But do you ever hear people say they’re not good at reading, or they hate reading?  People would never admit that.  Why?  It’s something to think about.”

Something to think about indeed.  Let me process for a minute, here…. Ok, done.  I hate my new math teacher.

We get to the part of class where we’re talking about percents.  He decides to tell us a cautionary tale.  Once, while walking through the mall, he saw a big sale at Bed, Bath and Beyond.  40 percent off everything.  He spied a beautiful trash can, one he’d been wanting for a long time.  Stainless, with a pneumatic closer so it won’t slam shut.  It started off around a hundred and fifty bucks.  He grabbed his find and took it to the counter.

He figured the girl behind the counter was about 16 years old.  She rang him up and told him his total was 60 bucks.  Being an upstanding citizen, he told the girl that couldn’t be right.  She said, nope, that’s the right price.  He started to try to explain the difference between forty percent of something and forty percent off something.  He said he finally gave up and took his generous discount… Because (and here we see the weak-minded get their just desserts despite the benevolent attempts of the math-ters), “I decided, look, if they’re dumb enough to hire someone like that, they deserve what they get.”

In case you’re the type of person for whom math comes easily, but writing or parsing out language does not, let me walk you through what I heard on my first day of math class after 20 years off.

Underlying implications:

  • It is socially acceptable to be bad at math, and to admit it
  • It is socially unacceptable to be bad at reading and to admit it.  Reading being the favorite son of the society.
  • If we are bad at math, it is probably due to our willingness to accept that as our fate, due to the prejudice our culture has against math.  If we are good at it, it is due at least in part to our ability to surmount the social pressures trying to dumb us down.  Our moral superiority shines through the dark cloud of anti-intellectualism.
  • No one is dumb enough to admit they aren’t a good reader, this is because our culture provides support and encouragement, making the inability to read a non-option
  • People who are bad at math shouldn’t be hired, and it’s ok to take advantage of them without feeling bad
  • Not only is it OK to take advantage of them, but also anyone who deigns to employ them or otherwise give them legitimacy.
  • It is acceptable to spend ninety dollars on a container for your trash.

Setting aside the fact that we’ve spent thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars trying to get our son to be able to read, I was a little insulted.

The more hours I invest into trying to learn math, the more angry I get.  I sort of believed what people said to me for a long time which was this:  “You’re a smart girl, you have a high IQ, there is no reason you can’t do math.  You’ve bought into the societal expectation that girls aren’t good at math, and you’re not really trying.”

Now I remember glazing over in math class in high school, so maybe I was lazy.  But in college, I remember trying really hard.  I couldn’t make things stick in my head.  Even that I had chalked up to being distracted, unmotivated or poorly taught.  This time, I was going to (am still going to) really try hard.  Focus and do my homework, pay attention in class, ask for help when I don’t understand.

Every time I do math homework, I come close to tears.  Every.  Time.  I think of myself as a competent person who can do anything she sets her mind to.  This is the decade of my life where I learn to accept my limits.  I’m still going to work hard (hours every day) to improve my math score (which was in the 33rd percentile).  But I’m going to know that when I have trouble, it’s because the math part of my brain was accidentally coated in Teflon during production.  It makes things harder for me.

The numbers and chunks of problems seem like they move around on the page when I do homework.  I can’t seem to accurately transcribe a problem from one part of the page to the other.  I can get a problem right, but when it comes to to the next problem of the same type, I suddenly cannot remember how I did the last one. Sometimes when I narrate out loud, I say one number, but write a different one (which I only notice when someone who’s working with me, stops me).   It’s like trying to watch a pixellated TV screen, or one where the horizontal control is out of whack.

I’m not asking for disability payments,or anything.  I’m just asking for a little nonjudgmental understanding, and an admission of what a crap-shoot intelligences are.  Math people, I’m just asking for you to help me as best you can, without being so overtly disdainful.  That’s all.  There’s something awry with my wiring and I can’t fix it.

Those of you who can do math, please consider letting go of the idea that I’m lazy, or the product of a broken society.   I realize this means I’ll have to tolerate your inability to differentiate between ‘women’ and ‘woman’, Mr. Hmong speaking math professor, without feeling like you’re just careless.  I’ll have to let go of my little twinge of superiority when you misspell  words like there, their and they’re, you’re, your, were, where, we’re, etc. I’ll miss feeling superior, but I’ll really understand what you mean when you say you’re just a bad speller.

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7 thoughts on “Math Complex

  1. So, help me understand… You do or do not believe in the theory of “Math brained” or “reading brained” people?

  2. I believe most people do just fine with both, maybe with a tendency towards one or the other, but that some people are quite handicapped in their ability to read or do math. I happen to read and write very well and very quickly. I do math poorly and at a very, very slow speed.

    My bottom line here is that an instructor shouldn’t start out his refresher course on a subject by insulting a subset of his students. I’m not bad at math because it’s socially acceptable. I’m bad at math because that’s how I’m wired. It’s legitimately hard, but not a reflection on my overall work ethic, intelligence or general worthiness.

  3. Then, I aggree with your sentiment… I view “math vs reading” like the scales of liberty… Have more of one, and less of the other… There are (of course) exceptions to that rule..

    Maybe your instructor is playing the roll of “drill Sgt.”…

    (Shouting) – “Listen up you math maggots… You are no longer your own person, MATH owns you now!” Then after tearing you down, he’ll bring you back up…..

    And if that is not the case… You can always removed the valve stems from his car (or bike) tires…..

    Let me know if you need help with the latter…

  4. Jim says:

    I love the concept of a MATH MAGGOT (it is so close to a math faggot). It seems to me there was one other learning that you might think about from that first day of class — if you have a math challenged check out clerk you should buy lots more stuff at Bed, Bath and Beyond — especially the Beyond stuff. As one math challenged person to another, it could be worse!

  5. emily says:

    say, this sounds a lot like the difficulty you had with reading sheet music. there’s a lot of math in music, and (i’m told… i am so not a math person) a lot of music in math. didn’t you get some relief from sheet music frustration with las drogas? how do you feel about drugging yourself for schoolwork?

  6. Mary says:

    Lisa, here’s my take:

    I like math…I am fairly good at math. For me, it’s logical. Numbers fall into boxes for me and line up nicely. I love spreadsheets and tend to put anything and everything into a spreadsheet so I can understand it better.

    Now language skills….not necessarily logical ~ the flow and movement of writing which you excel at, challenges me.

    But I can read and appreciate wonderful writing. I cannot write well, but man do I love a good writer! It’s what keeps me checking your blog!! Who gives a rip if you can calculate 40% off better than the clerk? Good for him trying to be so altruistic to BBBeyond. I’m not looking for his blog to tell me how he has solved for XYZ.

    Keep up the great writing! A good math teacher would try to help you understand math under your terms, not his. I hope you find that kind of teacher.

  7. Bern says:

    I got through enough college math to live by taking one math class at a time; no other classes; no other distractions besides life. Then I spent 8 hours a day, 7 days a week studying. I think we are dyslexic in math & wish they’d have had teflon when I was growing up! Exactly the same feelings. OMG! Even as an adult, the tears & frustration are still raw!

    They used to say similar things about me, and math, school, in general & I think your mother, too, about how smart we were & there was no reason we should not do better in school. I think we had to figure it out for ourselves before we were able to shine. We never knew how smart we were. No one ever let us know, really. That wasn’t done back then. I remember my scores, except in math, were really high in the tests they used to give where the scores were in percentiles. Even math, they were pretty high – 70s, 80s. It wasn’t until I had kids in school & read the explanations about those tests that I realized I was pretty smart as a kid; much less so as an adult in a competitive field.

    Apparently, Bart was in some special math classes & my mom said that it helped him & that if they’d have had those classes when I went to school, maybe my math would be better. She also (as an adult only, NEVER while I was a child) said that the school system (Assumption) changed their math program from “regular” math to “modern” math while I was there. She believed that I got lost in the shuffle. THEN I went to public school, where they were still doing “regular” math the first year and switched to “modern” math my second year. She knew I was lost by then. Nobody told me. I guess you didn’t tell kids things like that then.

    I don’t remember my GRE score on math -it was depressingly low (I cried). I remember thinking that I’d never get in. But my combined score was high enough to get me into graduate school without anything else as was my college GPA.
    I LOVE math. I love reading about it, doing puzzles (which can take hours to complete), playing around with fractal formulae to create arty iterations, figuring out different ways to put numbers together to come up with different types of statistical analyses related to things at work, etc. I love the golden mean, 3.14, & am fascinated by different things in physics that require numbers. blah blah blah. I don’t get it, but I am drawn to it like a moth to light.

    I love the idea of Einstein’s theory of relativity & that my pea brain explains it by a stop light. When I approach a light changing from red to green, the person stopped at the light seems to me to take f o r e v e r to get started. It’s because I’m in motion & being in motion changes my perception about the stopped car. It’s relative to what’s happening. I’m going relatively faster than the stopped car. The stopped car is going, even as it is starting to accelerate away from the stop light, relatively slower.
    I also love the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle (may be called other names, like uncertainty) but a wave can be a ray and a ray can be a wave. If you are looking for a wave, that’s what you’ll find. If you are looking for a ray, that’s what you’ll find. A good book is by Gary Zukav, who I think is mostly full of bs, but this one explained some things in ways i could understand, although some people who really understand physics & math have poo-poohed this book, “The Dancing Wu-Li Masters”.

    Another book, which I don’t claim to understand much in it, but loved reading it, was by Kaku, Michao, I think, called “Hyperspace” I think. Too tired to look that one up. OOPS.

    Did not mean to start a book, just to commiserate AND encourage you to hang in there. & you are way smarter than I am/was. Each succeeding generation is smarter & your genes are really good: look at your mom & your dad, two brilliant people. Cry as you go along. Memorizing some things can be useful, especially the order in which things go in an algebra equation, which I forget now but could figure out, if necessary – I think it’s add, subtract, multiply, divide within each part, then combine & do it over with all parts. Worst were the teachers, two of them, at the U of New Orleans, who thought girls did not belong in their classes. Best was the teacher at Clatsop Comm College, who welcomed me, an unusually older student, at 26, into his class and told me he was sure I would be successful. I was.

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